That was me, as a child. I must have been around five or six years old. My parents, out of respect for my paternal grandmother (who was a strict vegetarian), did not cook or consume eggs at home. But our next-door neighbours, the Handas, a Punjabi family would regularly have omelettes or boiled eggs for breakfast and whenever I wanted to have some eggs, I would just go over.
Their live-in household help, Chanchal didi (didi is at term that we use in India for an elder sister), was loving and indulgent. She would either hoist me to the kitchen counter, or seat me at the dining table and make an omelette for me – no matter what time of the day it was. And she always served it with a smile and a pat on my head.
A neighbour across the road was the owner of a South-Indian restaurant in the Sayajigunj area. Whenever I wanted dosas, idlis or appams, I would go to their place. They would also send a platter of food for us, making sure to add my favourites. My mother would send them Gujarati delicacies in return – handvo (savoury lentil cake), khandvi (a savoury snack made of gram flour and yoghurt), and theplas (flatbreads made from fresh fenugreek leaves). When I landed up at their place and said, “Kanna didi, I feel like a dosa,” a hot dosa would unfailingly be served to me.
Growing up, food was often shared between neighbours. Not just for Diwali, when friends of my mother would sent a bowl or a plate of the special savoury snacks they had made at home, but all throughout the year. You would get homemade gulab jamuns (a milk-based spongy sweet), hot crispy pakoras (fritters) when it rained, bits of sweets and savoury snacks arranged in a steel plate if a neighbour had travelled to another state and brought back some delicacies not available in the city we all shared and called home. (During those days, it wasn’t unusual to have your steel utensils engraved with your name, surname and date of purchase so that when food was sent out in those containers, they would always come back to their rightful owner. My mother used to mark her crockery with a little dot of a red nail polish at the back of the plates and bowls. It was her little way of making sure that her crockery came back to her.)
That way, I experienced food from different regions of India. Thalipeeth (a savoury multi-grain flatbread) sent by the Maharashtrian aunty, rajma chawal (kidney beans curry and rice) from the Punjabi neighbours, savoury as well as sweet appams (pancake dish, made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk) from the South Indian family, a khichyu (savoury snack) that was special to the Patel community sent by the Patel aunty whose family owned the day-and-night pharmacy store in the old city. This was also the aunty I would go to when I felt like sipping on an aerated drink, especially Gold Spot, since my father did not allow us to stock or consume aerated drinks at home. (She used to have a crate with a mix of different aerated drinks and would always offer me one when I visited with my mother. And I would jump at the opportunity and say yes every single time!)
My 80 plus mother still loves to pack little dabbas of food for everyone. Once a friend who had visited my mother texted me that she had received a jar of homemade chevdo, a packet of dry fruits and theplas for the ‘journey’ back home and also so that she had something ready for lunch (the theplas) after getting home. It was just a three-hour trip and yet my mother packed her tons of food.
I try to recreate a little of that world. Now, in a different continent, and far away from India, I love sharing food with my neighbours and in turn, I receive lots of food from them as well.
There’s something so beautiful about sending out little containers filled with what you have cooked for the day, and to have containers of what people have cooked in return. Each container is like a discovery – of a new dish, a different way of using an ingredient, an entirely new way of combining ingredients…
Recently, we sent out two containers of a take on undhiyu, a Gujarati delicacy. The shaak is made by stuffing potatoes, baby brinjals, onions and such with a masala made of crushed roasted peanuts, coconut scrapings, fresh coriander and assorted spices. The stuffed vegetables are cooked on a bed of green pigeon peas, diced sweet potatoes, peas, and a variety of other vegetables if available (raw banana, purple yam, Elephant foot yam.) Our neighbours in turn left packages of homemade food outside our door. One neighbour sent Coorgi pork curry with rice chappatis (or akki rotis), another sent us dahi-chicken and a green chillies and coriander chutney.
Over the past two years in Dublin, Ireland, we have sampled a variety of food from our neighbours. We discovered newer dishes via the food they sent us. For instance, Himachali dham food, Sindhi kadhi and pakora, a beans sambhar, Coorgi pork, North Indian styled combination of halwa, chole puri...
Every time we discover something new, it fills us with wonder and delight. India is such a vast country and one where food, recipes and customs different from one city to another, and each region has its own special cuisine – it feels like we need more than seven lifetimes to sample each and every cuisine.
Yesterday, we sampled Irish delicacies. Our neighbours, Alex and Stephen brought us two beautiful plates laden with homemade Coddle (a stew like dish made of sausages, potatoes and carrots) and fresh soda bread. As they handed us the white plates (they didn’t enter our apartment as the whole of Ireland is in a lockdown), they told us a little story. Standing at a safe distance, Stephen told us that at the estate that he grew up in, Coddle was a staple. At a particular time or on Sundays, if you were to walk down his estate, especially when he was a child, you could smell Coddle being cooked in almost all the houses. Alex, who grew up in Greystones said that he had heard of Coddle but had it only when he met Stephen and Stephen’s mother, as it wasn’t so much cooked at his home.
“It’s not something that is particularly very appealing to look at. The sausages look pink because they have been pressure cooked; and yes, we use a pressure cooker too. But it is delicious and warming, and especially so when it is cold. It warms you up and feels like home and a hug,” said Stephen.
We looked at Coddle in awe and with delight. And as luck would have it, our own daddy pressure cooker was at work in our kitchen, conjuring up Bisi Bele Bath (a steaming hot mixture of lentils and vegetables with a generous dose of ghee) – another recipe that is good at warming you up and makes you feel like you are home.
We packed them up a dabba of our Bisi Bele Bath and a bowl of boondi and mixture and they looked at it with a similar delight and wonderment.
Food, as it has done through centuries, had yet again, created a little hour full of magic and mystery and conversations and stories.